27th February - 6th March 2010
I (Rob Hughes) along with my friend Mark Breaks decided to spend 9 days birding in Jordan. One of our non-birding friends works in a hotel in Petra so we decided to visit and see some of the amazing species out there cheaply. Flights from Manchester to Amman via London were £340 return. Our mate’s rates hotel in Petra was £5 a night for a bed and food and car hire/fuel was cheap. The hotel at Azraq was more expensive at £26 a night per person with breakfast. Decent trip reports are hard to come by and bird locations are vague so it was a bit hit or miss whether we saw our target species. We managed to get a £20 on the spot speeding fine at Aqaba and a parking ticket that we put in the bin because we couldn’t understand the Arabic writing. We passed many police checkpoints with machine guns mounted on the back of jeeps on our travels because you are always near a foreign border but they are friendly and as soon as they see you are British they just let you past. Food away from Petra is cheap. One day our lunch was 20p, even at the Saudi truck stop a lamb kebab was £1.
After our overnight stay in Madaba we decided to stop at Suwayma on the Dead Sea and head south towards Petra from there. Whilst looking for Dead Sea Sparrows we picked up many Spectacled Bulbuls, 2 Southern Grey Shrikes and our first ‘continental’ Stonechats. After unsuccessfully trying to find the Sparrows we carried on south towards Petra where we stopped the car at the best looking wadis. The first stop near Hammamat Ma’in produced our first of many flocks of Tristram’s Starlings wolf whistling on the rocks below us. Carrying on slightly further south we got to a good looking Wadi with a dam over the road (by the 26Km post). As soon as we got out of the car we could hear our first Blackstart’s singing, Rock Martins flying over head, migrant Barn Swallows, Chiffchaffs and a Lesser Whitethroat. We got our first sighting of the Little Green Bee-eaters flying around here and sitting on a fence and Wadi side above what was possibly a nest hole. We also had our only Short-toed Eagle circling over the Wadi and our first Steppe Buzzard here. Another minute down the road we had a flock of 32 Fan-tailed Raven circling over a cliff by a police checkpoint.
Blackstart Fan-tailed Raven
A little further down the road we stopped at a farm near Hammamat Ma’in where we had White Wagtails, Spanish Sparrows, 6 Graceful Prinia and out first of many Black Redstarts. Another farm a bit further on we had our only Cattle Egrets sitting around a water storage pond. We managed to bump into a couple of Indian Silverbills here, which was a nice surprise. Books suggest they have been breeding here for at least 20 years now. A ‘red spot’ Bluethroat made a brief appearance here too.
Little Green Bee-eater
Heading towards the salt pans 3 Spur-winged Plover flew over the car and hundreds of Common Swifts and the odd House Martin could also be seen. The salt pans themselves just held about 15 Black-winged Stilts. After the salt pans we then headed inland at Al-Tafila. Our first stop in the hills produced our first Palestine Sunbird, 5 Striolated Buntings, 3 more Little Green Bee-eaters, more Chiffchaffs and another Bluethroat. At the highest point over Al-Tafila we saw our first of many Sinai Rosefinches. A fine male sang from the rocks and roadside barrier. We eventually made it to Petra.
Striolated Bunting Sinai Rosefinch
We decided to go to Dana village in the morning despite the strong winds. This is a ghost town with quite a lot of trees and farmland to bird. This is where we got a lot of species from home in their greatest abundance such as wintering Chaffinch c40, Blackbirds, 3 Great Tit, Song Thrush and Robin. Our first Sparrowhawk even put in an appearance. Dana Village was the best place for seeing Palestine Sunbirds. They were very tame, very vocal and we saw at least 12 birds in the area. We also managed to get at least 3 Chukar and a Griffon Vulture here.
At Dana Reserve itself we manage to see our first of many Desert Larks and Mourning Wheatears from the car. Stops again in the best looking habitat produced a male Spectacled Warbler and a few very bright Greenfinches in the lower vegetation. We decided to head a bit further west into the drier, less vegetated areas. Here we found out first of 2 Shrub Warblers, a Steppe Buzzard and our only Long-legged Buzzard of the trip in the barren area.
Scrub Warbler Mourning Wheatear
Along the road to little Petra from Wadi Mousa in the fog we managed to find 6 Desert Finches feeding at the side of the road, very close to the car. We carried on out the other side of Little Petra towards Wadi Araba where we stumbled across an area of grassy farmland near a water treatment area. The grassy area was a haven for passerines. We managed to find 3 Hoopoe, a flock of 9 Corn Bunting, 13 Woodlark, ‘White Spot’ Bluethroat, our only ‘Middle Eastern’ Black Redstart, ‘Sibe’ Stonechat, Meadow Pipits, Water Pipits, 2 Red-throated Pipit and our only Rock Sparrow. However the best bird was a wintering female Syrian Serin with a big Green Finch flock. This probably explains why we didn’t see any at Dana the previous day. On the way back we found a lone Brown-necked Raven sitting and calling on a cliff near Little Petra.
We could not miss the opportunity to do the touristy thing and visit Petra itself, one of the Worlds wonders. Whilst walking around the amazing area we still managed to find many more Sinai Rosefinches, 2 Fan-tailed Raven, Pallid Swift c10, Common Kestrels and a distant Barbary Falcon.
Today was the day for visiting the Aqaba area in the south. Whilst driving in we passed by many Indian House Crows in the town itself. We then fairly instantly picked out a White-eyed Gull flying parallel with the car against the coast. After getting out and wandering around the area close to the Saudi Arabia border we managed to find at least 16 White-eyed Gulls either roosting or feeding in the marina area. Other Gulls in the area included many Black-headed Gulls, a Caspian Gull, c20 Yellow-legged Gulls and a ‘Baltic’ Lesser Black-backed Gull. From that one point we could see Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Eilat in Israel.
We then stopped at the migrant hotspot in the town of Aqaba. Although a little early for migrants we found many Chifchaffs of different races, Lesser Whitethroat (4), Common Whitethroat, Hoopoe (2) and Tree Pipit (2). We also found local species such as more Desert Finches (8) in the short grass, Rose-ringed Parakeets and even more House Crows at the extreme edge of their range.
In the afternoon we visited Wadi Rum. Whilst getting our entry ticket we found a White-crowned Wheatear. Other trip ticks included a fine male Desert Wheatear and our only Blue Rock Thrush. Again Sinai Rosefinches were abundant here. At least 30 were feeding/drinking in the area. We had more Brown-necked Ravens and Tristram’s Starlings, another Sparrowhawk and Shrub Warbler.
Tristram's Starling White-crowned Black Wheatear
It was now time to head to the deserts in the east so we went back up to Suwayma via Wadi Araba. In the Wadi itself we found more Little Green Bee-eaters by the side of the road. We managed to find more Desert Wheatears and Northern Wheatears. However the highlight was seeing 4 Arabian Babblers running along the ground.
Little Green Bee-eater
In the farmland areas from day one we saw more Graceful Prinia’s and many more Common Swifts. The salt pans were a lot more productive. Black-winged Stilts had increased to at least 35 birds, 2 Kentish Plovers were feeding along the waters edge. Just north of the salt pans 3 migrant Black Storks circles overhead, we picked out a Bonelli’s Eagle hunting over one of the mountains and a Grey Heron flew over the road.
We tried for a second time (unsuccessfully) to find Dead Sea Sparrows at Suwayma. They may have been wintering elsewhere. However, we did have a cracking White-throated Kingfisher sitting on the telegraph wires near the police checkpoint. In the vegetation nearby 3 more Little Green Bee-eaters seemed to follow us around. This is a bird we thought would be tough to find. We had a tame family flock of 5 Southern Grey Shrikes in the vegetation as well.
Now based at the Azraq ‘meaning blue’ Oasis in the east we visited the small reserve with a hide. We were lucky that this reserve is open again as there was a fire a few months back caused by a cigarette dropped into the reeds. Renowned for its passage migrants we were not disappointed. Highlight was a stonking male Ruppell’s Warbler. Chiffchaffs, ‘White Spot’ Bluethroats and (c3) Moustached Warblers that were feeding from the reed edges. 2 male Little Crakes showed well alongside a Moorhen. A Squacco Heron and Great White Egret put in a brief appearance. Large numbers of White-eared Bulbuls were a surprise as they weren’t documented in any of the trip reports we read before arriving. Presumably they are part of the expanding Iraq population. A Water Pipit dropped into the damp area behind the hide as a Steppe Buzzard and adult Marsh Harrier flew over. One of the reserves Buffalo’s booted up a Snipe for us as well.
White-eared Bulbul Ruppell's Warbler
The next stop was Shamwari reserve. Although the reserve is closed for quite a long time for restoration we read that the entrance road is good for the desert species. We quickly found a nice Temminck’s Lark by the roadside. After watching it for a bit we soon realized they were everywhere. There must have been at least 70 in the area. With regards to Wheatears we found many Isabellines and a few Northern and Deserts. There were many hirundines and Common Swifts hanging around the edge of the reserve. Not long after leaving the car 6 birds flew over high which we think may have been Bar-tailed Desert Larks but they were too difficult to identify. A Red-rumped Swallow was drinking from a tiny pool whilst another glided around with the many House Martins and Swallows. Walking into the desert from near the fenced off reserve entrance we picked out a distant wader running away from us in the rockier part of the desert. This turned out to be a winter plumage Greater Sand Plover. Whilst scanning the rest of the rocky area we picked out 2 Cream coloured Coursers. Not long after that 3 large birds were flying just above the horizon quite low. They were Common Cranes migrating north. A Corn Bunting then flew over in a similar direction. As we got back to the car a Southern Grey Shrike was sitting on the reserve fence. Driving back towards the main road we had a random stop about 2/3 of the way back. We soon found some shy birds feeding on the shingle. They turned out to be Short-toed Larks. Whilst watching this flock of 5 birds 2 more Greater Sand Plovers dropped onto the same shingle, including a cracking summer plumage male. We also had a distant raptor too distant to identify. Whilst trying to get closer to the raptor in the car an Alpine Swift flew low in front of us with some Common Swifts. 3 Hoopoe Larks were also singing/displaying in the area.
Temminck's Lark Cream-coloured Courser
Next stop was the Azraq oasis behind the Azraq reserve. This is a 15km stretch of water that brings all the migrants in. At that particular time just 4 Little Ringed Plovers fed along the waters edge.
Back to the reserve itself for a sit down as a Water Rail popped out of the reeds briefly as did an ‘Acro’ thought to be a Marsh Warbler.
One of the reports said that in the past there was an Eagle roost at Qasr Amra. None came in that night but it may have been an old site now disused. Best bird was a Barn Swallow with reddish under parts going through with the traditional Barn Swallows.
This was our last day of birding so we needed to make it count. We headed to As-Safawi near the Iraq border to look for the ‘Basalt’ Wheatear and dark Desert Larks. Although unsuccessful with these two we did manage to find another Cream Coloured Courser on the black rocks, many Isabelline Wheatears, Desert Wheatear, Temminck’s Larks and Crested Larks. The new addition to our trip list was Lesser Short-toed Larks (5) feeding with the Temminck’s Larks. Birding here was difficult so we decided to go back to Shamwari where we thought our chances of finding more desert species were higher. On the way there a 2nd summer male Marsh Harrier flew across the road. Not long after getting back to the reserve entrance we had another Common Crane fly over. A raptor was then picked up circling towards us. The Eagle revealed its golden head as it came closer and turned out to be an adult Eastern Imperial Eagle. It could have been the same bird we saw distantly the previous day. We also managed to find 3 Cream Coloured Coursers and another Lesser Short-toed Lark on the shingly area half way back towards the main road.
Isabelline Wheatear Lesser Short-toed Lark
We then stopped in briefly at Azraq reserve to see if anything new had popped in. Unfortunately it was very quiet, but a Little Crakes was still about.
We then bumped into a ranger who took us along the side of the reserve along a very bumps track to the western edged of Azraq oasis. He did not speak any English but we did trust him to show us some birds in the last hour of daylight. We managed to get 5 more ‘trip ticks’ including a roosting male Hen Harrier with what seemed to be more black primary’s than usual, 3 Cormorant, 20+ Avocet and distant roosting flocks of Pintail and Shoveler.
Driving back to the airport, an Owl flew across the road. It was so brief that we were unsure of its identity. Due to the shape and general colour we think it was a migrating Long-eared Owl.
All Images taken by Mark Breaks, Copyright - © Breaks Bird Photography